Under revised federal rules set to be released later this month, state wildlife managers in Idaho, Wyoming and Montana will have greater discretion over when and for what reasons they can order the killing of wolves.
The changes to the federal 10(j) rule, which will take effect regardless of whether gray wolves are successfully delisted from the federal Endangered Species List next month, will allow wolves to be killed for depredations on stock animals and dogs and to achieve wildlife-management objectives.
Conservation groups have already indicated they will sue the federal government to stop or delay the delisting of wolves in the tri-state region.
Suzanne Stone, Boise-based Northern Rockies representative of Defenders of Wildlife, one of the groups that has indicated it will challenge the delisting, said Thursday the revised 10(j) is basically a de-facto delisting of gray wolves. Stone said the revised rule would give the state about the same amount of control over wolf management as they would under delisting.
She said conservationists also plan on challenging the revised 10(j) rule in court.
"These changes are clearly unnecessary," Stone said during a public hearing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service held in Boise last year. "We strongly oppose changes to the 10(j) rule."
Since 66 gray wolves trapped in Canada were reintroduced into Central Idaho and Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming in 1995 and 1996, the wild canines have successfully reproduced and expanded their ranges to the point at which they now number more than 1,500 in the wider tri-state region, biologists say. Wolves living in Montana include descendents of those first reintroduced wolves as well as naturally recolonizing wolves that crossed over from Canada into the northern parts of the state beginning in the early 1980s.
Since then, anything related to wolf recovery in the region has been very controversial. And those who are involved in the wolf recovery effort don't expect the emotional debate to die down anytime soon.
The controversial 10(j) rule, which was first published in the Federal Register in 2005, applies to areas south of U.S. Interstate 90, which crosses northern Idaho and Montana. It now only allows the killing of wolves attacking livestock or herding and guarding animals under select circumstances. The changes, proposed last year, would further allow the shooting of wolves that attack dogs on public and private land. The rule change would also make it easier for the states to kill wolves in areas where ungulate populations are not meeting state Fish and Game management objectives.
As the 10(j) rule now exists, states must prove that wolves are having an unacceptable impact on ungulate populations—which include deer, elk, moose, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, antelope and bison—to be allowed to remove them by lethal means. In the 2005 rule, unacceptable impact is defined as a "decline in a wild ungulate population or herd, primarily caused by wolf predation." Under the new rule the Fish and Wildlife Service is set to release, unacceptable impact would be redefined to be an "impact to a wild ungulate population or herd, with wolves as one of the major causes of the population or herd not meeting established state or tribal population or herd management goals."
In the existing wolf rule, "we set a threshold that has not provided the intended flexibility to allow states and tribes to resolve conflicts between wolves and ungulate populations," the Fish and Wildlife Service stated in a notice published in the Federal Register in mid-2006 proposing the changes.
In north-central Idaho's Lolo elk zone, which state biologists say has seen a significant decrease in elk numbers, that could mean the removal of wolves to meet management objectives. Several years ago, Fish and Game petitioned the federal government under the existing rule to allow it to remove up to 43 wolves, or 70 percent of the total wolf population, in this heavily forested region. The remote area, which covers the northern half of the Selway Bitterroot Wilderness and other points north, is a popular destination for elk hunters from Idaho and elsewhere.
Steve Nadeau, large carnivore manager for the Department of Fish and Game, said the agency withdrew the petition after determining it couldn't meet the standards under the existing rule.
"The bar was set too high," he said.
For now, Nadeau said the state doesn't have plans to resubmit a new proposal under the revised 10(j) rule. Rather, he said, the state is pinning its hopes on a successful outcome to the federal delisting process.
"We're putting our eggs in the delisting basket," he said.
However, he said if the delisting were delayed, the state may reconsider petitioning the Fish and Wildlife Service for authority to kill wolves in the Lolo zone and anywhere else that "we're in trouble with some of our big game populations."
Nadeau said such a move would require an additional round of public comment.
And, he added, "it would still have to be based on science."
Concurrent with its plans to relax wolf-management standards in these states, the Fish and Wildlife Service is also set to officially delist the Idaho, Montana and Wyoming wolf populations from the federal endangered species list at the end of next month, barring a successful appeal by conservationists.
Once they're delisted, management oversight for gray wolves will be handed over to the states, which could mean the beginning of statewide wolf hunts as soon as this fall.
Nadeau said that on March 5, the Idaho Fish and Game Commission will vote on the state's draft wolf population management plan, which sets criteria on wolf hunting for the next five years. The plan ran into a barrage of heavy criticism during a recent public hearing held in Hailey in December. However, it found greater support in rural communities like Challis, northeast of Ketchum on the opposite side of the Boulder Mountains.
Nadeau said he will also present the commission with a mockup establishing wolf hunting quotas for the first Idaho wolf hunt at the March 5 meeting. However, he said the commission won't vote on those details until after another round of public hearings in each Idaho Department of Fish and Game region.
The state's draft wolf plan specifies 15 breeding pairs and 150 wolves as the lowest level the wild canines would be allowed to fall to across Idaho, and further states that "optimal hunting opportunity and flexibility in conflict resolution can be achieved by maintaining more than 20 breeding pairs."
In recent years, Idaho's wolf population has been growing at an annual rate of 20 percent, according to Fish and Game figures. In 2006, biologists estimated the state's wolf population at 673, with 41 breeding pairs and 72 packs.
Nadeau said that like it does for other big game animals and predators in the state, Fish and Game will establish details for wolf hunting on an annual basis during meetings in January and February.
"Every year we'd be adjusting quotas," he said.
The changes to wolf management in Idaho and the rest of the Northern Rockies come at a particularly active time in the wolf debate.
In a letter written to U.S. Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne last December, five members of the House Natural Resources Committee, including committee Chairman Nick J. Rahall, D-W.V., asked the secretary to delay removing gray wolves in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming from the federal endangered species list. The committee members described the states as "hostile" to wolf conservation.
Other committee members signing the letter were Rep. Jim Saxton, R-N.J., Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash., Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., and Rep. Wayne Gilchrest, R-Md.
In the letter, the five congressmen warned that the states could reduce the wolf population in the tri-state region from its current estimated level of 1,500 animals to as few as 300 under their existing wolf management plans.
The letter drew a strong condemnation from at least one local U.S. legislator, Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo.